Published in the Globe and Mail Newspaper 23 November 2006 Issue
Spamalot isn’t just the name of one of the latest hits on Broadway, it’s also one of the unfortunate side effects of having an e-mail address, attracting unsolicited mail touting unwanted products. The term spam, is widely believed to have come from a Monty Python sketch about the canned-meat product of the same name; the skit ended with an exasperated voice screaming â€œShut-upâ€. If only the e-mail variety were that easy to silence.
Spam is the sending of unsolicited e-mail, usually advertising or scams to part you from your hard earned money. Initially spam was purely text based and straight to the point. As spam filtering surfaced, spammers were forced to more creative and devious way to fool the filters. One trick used is to insert lots of totally innocuous text, usually prose or reference material to confuse the filters. This method is called “hash busting”. Filters deploy complex rules to determine whether or not an e-mail is spam, which includes looking for certain key words and phrases. This “hash busted” text is carefully weighted, to ensure the filters red flags are not raised.
Spammers, never ones to stand still, now have a more effective method, which is proving a lot more difficult to detect and the scourge of e-mail everywhere. An image containing their real spam message is created. This image is inserted in the “hash busted” text. Current filtering software is unable to determine what’s contained in the image and has the compounded problem of the “hash busted” text.
An additional trick to harvest valid e-mail addresses is to include an embedded image, measuring 1 pixel by 1 pixel in a spam message. This image is downloaded from the spammers website when the e-mail is viewed. The image has a unique name which is linked to your e-mail address. When you open the e-mail, the spammer will know meaning your address is a valid, as he can tell when the unique image file has been viewed and can cross reference to the e-mail address that’s just been validated. Resulting in even more spam from either the original spammer, or another spammer who’s bought your validated e-mail address. This last trick can be thwarted by switching off images in your e-mail software, so they do not display automatically.
The global organization Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group (MAAWG), headquartered in San Francisco, USA, estimates that, based on a sampling of 100 million mail boxes in 2005, about 80 to 85 per cent of e-mail was junk. That translates to a terrific waste of bandwidth, time and indeed money. “Some estimates suggest that Internet users are paying their Internet providers an extra $60 a year because of the added security measures needed to combat spam,” says Neil Schwartzman, chairman of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (CAUCE). “AOL for instance blocks upward of four billion e-mails a day”. he says.
The system for delivering e-mail is called SMTP, a protocol that’s as old as the Internet itself and has numerous flaws. The main flaw is you do not need to be authenticated i.e. prove who you are by entering a user name or password, to send an e-mail. This means that if you have the wherewithal, it’s easy to send an e-mail to a friend, associate or several million people at once and have the e-mail appear as if it’s been sent by anyone you desire.
Despite driving most consumers crazy, spamming is big business. A negligible amount of money can send out millions of unsolicited e-mails, which only need a minimal response to make it pay. “Sending spam is relatively inexpensive, especially when spammers use the resources of unsuspecting Internet users. Any income they do generate is virtually all profit” says Schwartzman. The resources in question are mail servers and even unsuspecting Internet users computers.
Several countries are trying to crack down on spammers and stem the flood of unwanted e-mail with new laws and regulations. Under Australia’s Spam Act 2003, for example, unsolicited commercial electronic messages must not be sent; such messages must include information about the individual or organization; must contain a functional unsubscribe facility; and address-harvesting software must not be supplied, acquired or used. The main remedies for breaches of the Act are civil penalties and injunctions. Other countries including Japan, New Zealand and the United States (Can Spam Act of 2003) have similar laws. CAUCE for one, is pushing the federal government to bring tough legal remedies to combat spam in this country. As yet however there is no definite timetable for an anti-spam bill to be brought before the commons. Although no new laws are forthcoming, recent efforts by Internet providers have resulted in Canada falling from their position of 10th to 16th of worst offending countries.
What can you do to prevent or at least filter out spam coming in to your e-mail and also make for a safer e-mail experience
- Use e-mail software with good spam filtering.
- Never open or reply to a piece of spam.
- Turn off the display of images to prevent them being displayed automatically
- Be wary of e-mail from unknown addresses
- Do not open e-mails with attachments
- Do not click on any links contained in a spam message, especially the “unsubscribe” links
- Shroud e-mail address on your websites. For instance change email@example.com to fred [AT] emailtesteremail DOT com. Spammers regularly check websites to harvest e-mail addresses
- Be wary of entering your e-mail address in on-line web forms, unless you trust the website in question
- Be sure if you sign up to a website, that your e-mail address will not be sold. Read their privacy statement
Published in the November 2006 Issue (#10) Podcast User Magazine (Download)
Iâ€™ve spoken a lot about the perfect podcast aggregator, or podcatcher as they are more affectionately known. Always at the top of my wish list is the ability to have access to my subscriptions from anywhere, so I can see whatâ€™s new and knock them off the list as they are listened to. There are many PC, Mac and Pocket PC-based podcatchers, but where they all have their stand-out features, none of them has this ability. That was until Google Reader.
Google Reader has been around for a while. It originally started out and is probably better know as an RSS aggregator, giving the ability to keep up to date with the latest news on the Internet. Recently, however, theyâ€™ve added the ability to subscribe and listen to podcasts, all from within the browser. This new ability was on the cards, as youâ€™ve been able to listen to MP3s received as attachments in your Gmail account, using a little Flash player that was automatically inserted in the email with the attachment. It was a logical extension to add this to Google Reader, and itâ€™s something that changes the whole nature of this aggregator.
The first thing I did with Google Reader was to import my existing Juice subscriptions. This was relatively easy, as Juice allowed me to export my subscriptions in the de facto OPML format. Google Reader is also able to handle OPML files, so after uploading my subscriptions to Google Reader, within a short time, my subscriptions were all accessible in front of me. The final step I had to do was re-categorize my subscriptions. I have a variety of podcasts, vidcasts and RSS feeds, and itâ€™s nice to be able to view each of the groups at the touch of a button.
One of the only bug-bears about using a web based aggregator is that you have to always have the browser open. That in itself isnâ€™t a huge pain, but it begins to get a little tricky when you have many Gmail accounts and you want to check your email on them. Itâ€™s easy to check the other accounts, but if you want to continue sifting through your podcasts, you have to ensure you log back into the account you use for your podcasts. I mainly use Firefox as my browser, so I circumvent these problems by using Internet Explorer for Google Reader and Firefox for everything else. You might also want to investigate an application called Netjaxer Desktop, which not only allows you to create shortcuts to websites but also allows you to minimize the launched website to your system tray. Iâ€™ve been using this in conjunction with Google Reader for a few weeks, and itâ€™s been working very nicely for me.
Iâ€™ve managed to trim back my podcast subscriptions of late, to around 60, and have so far had problems with only a couple using Google Reader. For example, whilst one side of the screen showed me I had podcasts not yet listened to, when I clicked a show with unread items, it showed all podcasts for that show as read. No big deal, as you can see all read podcasts, and the unread items are usually going to be at the top of the list. This can, however, be a pain, but itâ€™s something Iâ€™m prepared to accept, given the benefits Google Reader gives me. A couple of the other problems has been with the Dr Karl podcast, which for some strange reason (probably something to do with the audio compression) plays at nearly double speed. Iâ€™ve also had some problems with the Vobes show, seemingly ending in mid show. I havenâ€™t had the time to tell whether this was just Richard having a problem with the show heâ€™d uploaded, or whether Google Reader had a problem determining the show length. Of all my podcasts only two of them are in Appleâ€™s MP4 format, so consequently they will not play in Google Reader. It will be interesting to see if Google manages to find a solution to this.
In conclusion, I have to say Google Reader has impressed the pants off me. Iâ€™ve been using it for a few weeks, and apart from the odd glitch, itâ€™s been a joy to use. In fact Iâ€™ve been so impressed, I no longer use Juice or Winpodder. I have access to my podcasts no matter where I am, on no matter what operating system Iâ€™m using at that time. The only thing that would be nice to have is some kind of software that allows me to synchronize to my Pocket PC so that I could be able to listen to selected podcasts and read news offline. Then, when I next synchronize, it updates the status of my podcasts and news. Thatâ€™s not much to ask? Is it?